The Census Bureau recently released new data, “A Child’s Day: Living Arrangements, Nativity, and Family Transitions: 2011 (Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being),” that explores how widespread are selected parental practices that affect child well-being and how such practices vary by family types. Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland offers a summary of the main findings and commentary on their implications.

Parenting practices matter. Children’s long-term emotional and cognitive health is greatly affected by the daily rituals and rules of family life. Especially beneficial are the following parenting practices: reading to children; eating breakfast or dinner together as a family at least 5 out of 7 days in a week; having clear rules regarding television viewing; and facilitating children’s participation in extracurricular activities. A recent census report studies the prevalence of such parental involvement across different family types, comparing children under 18 living with two parents, a single parent, or a guardian.

Although most children – 63 percent – live with two married parents, 37 percent do not. Five percent live with two unmarried parents, 27.5 percent with a single parent, and 4.5 percent live with a guardian, according to this report. It is worth noting, moreover, that despite the preponderance of children living with two married parents at any one time, more than half of American children will spend some part of their childhood living in a household that does not include two biological parents who are married to each other. [i]

American parents are doing well on most of the parenting indicators covered in this report. Overall, fewer than 10 percent of children under age 6 were never read to last week. About half of 6-17 year olds ate breakfast with their family at least 5 days per week. Nine out of 10 parents of children under 12 had rules about television viewing. And one-fifth to two-fifths of all children participated in sports as an extracurricular activity.

Reading to (and talking with) children is an important way to make sure that children’s verbal skills develop appropriately and that they are ready for school. Focusing on the years immediately prior to school entry, the report shows that 54 percent of 3-5 year-old children living with married parents and a full half of 3-5 year-old children living with two unmarried parents were read to 7 days per week. Among children living with a single parent, that figure fell to 41 percent. But single parents reported reading to children aged 3-5 an average of 6 times a week, not dramatically less than the 6.8 times reported by married parents. (Another study has found that single mothers spend nearly an hour more time per day on solo child care than married mothers, despite working more hours outside the home. But that typically still does not produce enough total time to make up for the absence of a second care-giver or story-reader.[ii])

Pediatricians consistently recommend that parents monitor their children’s television viewing, including types of programs, hours watched, and total viewing time. Of children aged 6-11 living with two married parents, 93 percent have at least one such rule and 76 percent have all three types of rules, compared with 90 percent and 70 percent respectively of children living with a single parent.

Being placed in an advanced class in elementary school can enhance a child’s success in high school. Almost 13 percent of 6-11 year old children of married parents were enrolled in gifted classes, compared with 10.5 percent of children living with a single parent. Again the differences, though significant, are small.

Eating meals together allows kids and parents to talk about big issues and mundane things, like what the kids are working on in school. Phtoo by Katia Strieck via Flickr CC.
Eating meals together has nutritional benefits and gives kids space to share the events of their days with caring adults. Phtoo by Katia Strieck via Flickr CC.

Being held back in school can be a big disadvantage. Almost twice as many children living with one parent had ever repeated a grade as children living with two married parents. But the overall risk of this was low, with just 5.3 percent of 6-11 year-old children in a single-parent family ever repeating a grade, compared with 2.7 percent of children living with married parents.

Having routine mealtimes with the family has nutritional benefits and provides children an opportunity to share the events of the day with caring adults. Here we see little difference by family type, but a small advantage for children of single parents. Eating breakfast together with children aged 6-17 was a widespread practice that varied little by family structure. Eating dinner together was common at an early age but became less common among older children. A slightly higher proportion (35 percent) of 12-17 year old children living with a single parent reported eating dinner with a parent at least 5 days a week than children living with two married parents (32 percent).

This seeming advantage for children of single parent families may be a result of lower participation in the extracurricular activities that have been shown to contribute to better grades in high school and increased college enrollment. There is a trade-off between family dinner times and children’s extracurricular activities, which often extend into the family dinner hour, leading families to eat dinner in shifts. Teenage children of married parents are more likely than children of single parents to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, lessons and clubs. For example, 44 percent of teenage children of married parents vs. 34 percent of teenage children of single parents participate in sports.

Children of cohabiting parents are more likely to be disadvantaged in both extracurricular activities and family dinners. Children living in two unmarried parent families had lower levels of participation in extracurricular activities (only 32 percent participated in sports, for example) and the lowest percentage of all groups who ate dinner with a parent. Just a quarter of these children (26 percent) ate family dinners 5 times a week or more. This is likely linked to the characteristics of unmarried cohabiting parents, who tend to be younger and less educated than single mothers.[iii] As a result, they are likely to be in occupations with less control over their work schedules.[iv]

The proportions of children eligible for free and reduced cost school lunch are one indicator of children living in poverty. Photo by DC Central Kitchen via Flickr CC.
The proportions of children eligible for free and reduced cost school lunch are one indicator of children living in poverty. Photo by DC Central Kitchen via Flickr CC.

Poverty is our most striking problem. What is most striking about this report is the high proportion of American children who are financially disadvantaged. Overall, more than one-fifth (22 percent) of children of all ages, and more than a quarter (26 percent) of children under age six, lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. Not surprisingly, children living with single parents are the most likely to be living in poverty. Almost 41 percent of such children are poor. Yet two parents do not guarantee economic security: An astounding 37.3 percent of children of two parents who live together but are not married to each other are in poverty, and almost 30 percent of children living with a guardian are poor. The poverty rate of children in married-couple families is much lower – 14 percent – but in terms of absolute numbers there are more married than unmarried parents living below the poverty line.

It should be noted that the poverty rate for children in the U.S. is the highest in the developed nations. In 2000, child poverty rates in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden averaged 3 to 4 percent, Western European nations averaged 9 percent, and the UK averaged 15 percent. The U.S. had the highest child poverty rates, with 22 percent of children living in poverty.[v] This is not because of a higher proportion of children living with single parents in the U.S. but because the combination of tax and transfer policies do not lift low income earners and their families out of poverty as much as do other countries.

It is also important not to assume that getting single parents to marry would make these high poverty rates disappear. In many cases, parents do not marry because they are poor, rather than becoming poor because they are not married.[vi]

Given such large financial differences, it does not seem fair to compare the fraction of these different family types who engage in positive activities with children without adjusting for differences in their financial well-being. In earlier work, I have shown that many differences in outcomes between children in different family types disappear when the economic and demographic characteristics of the fathers and mothers (such as young age or low income) are taken into account.[vii]

Low-income kids are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Photo by Edward N. Johnson/U.S. Army.
Low-income kids are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Photo by Edward N. Johnson/U.S. Army.

The census report makes a major contribution by documenting differences in children’s involvement in extracurricular activities by the income of the household. Within each specified activity and across all family types, children whose family poverty sta­tus was 200 percent of poverty or higher had greater activity partici­pation levels than children living below poverty or those whose pov­erty status was 100 to 199 percent of poverty. For example, the extracurricular participation in sports of children in families at 200 percent or more of the poverty level is 42.5 percent, while the participation of those in poverty is 22.5 percent, a difference of 20 percentage points. The difference between children of two married parents and children with a single parent was only 10 percentage points (44 percent vs. 34 percent). Although having another parent in the household is important, having the resources to participate may be even more important.

In spite of living in what are difficult economic circumstances, the differences in these parenting behaviors between single parents, cohabiting unmarried parents, and married parents are comparatively small. If anything, the report documents the serious attention to parenting made by parents who are caring for children in difficult circumstances and highlights the importance of continuing to focus on improving economic and employment opportunities for parents and for guardians of young children. This is an especially urgent challenge for policy-makers today, because a report issued just this month shows that for the first time, a majority of public school children come from low-income families.[viii]


Laura Tach & Kathryn Edin (2013). The Compositional and Institutional Sources of Union Dissolution for Married

and Unmarried Parents in the United States, Demography 50, 1789-1818..

[ii] Ariel Kalil, Rebecca Ryan, and Eise Chor (2014). “Time Investments in Children Across Family Structures,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654 (1) (2014): 150–168.

[iii] Hofferth, Sandra L. (2006). Residential father family type and child well-being: Investment versus selection. Demography 43(1), 53-77

[iv] Toby Parcel & Charles Mueller (1983). Occupational differentiation, prestige, and socioeconomic status. Work and Occupations 1:49-80.

[v] Smeeding, Timothy (2008). Poorer by Comparison: Poverty, work and public policy in comparative perspective.

[vi] understanding low- income unmarried couples with children…/2008_Briefing_England_Unmarried- couples-with-children.pdf

[vii] Hofferth, Sandra L. (2006). Residential father family type and child well-being: Investment versus selection. Demography 43(1), 53-77.


Sandra Hofferth is a professor of family science and director of the maternal and child health program at the University of Maryland.